If any of our readers the Mazdaspeed3, they’ll likely remember it for its turbocharged grunt and ultra-direct handling, as well as for the fact that it didn’t look all that different from a standard Mazda3 Sport. So, it was actually a bit – just a little bit – of a sleeper.
Well, turbocharging has returned to the Mazda3 but they’ve turned the “sleeper” dial up to 11…if that’s possible.
I say that because this new, all-wheel-drive and turbocharged Mazda3 (base price $34,881 and $37,981 as tested) is explicitly not the Mazdaspeed3 incarnate.
It’s actually Mazda’s effort to tap into the luxury game, to add a little bit of class to their big-selling compact. Instead of aiming for the likes of the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, a talk with Mazda revealed that they have much higher sights than that; think models like the Mercedes-Benz A-Class or Audi A3. Which means that the manic manual-only, torque-steery and somewhat hooligan-esque attitude of something labelled “Mazdaspeed” just wasn’t in the cards.
Remember, unlike competition like Honda and Toyota, Mazda doesn’t have a luxury division, so they engineer the top trims of their cars to hopefully take a bite – a nibble, anyway – from the other guys’ luxury division.
For the Mazda3, that started a couple of years ago with the addition of an AWD powertrain. Hitherto the purview of Subaru and Subaru only in the non-luxury compact car segment, the addition of AWD was a huge leg up for Mazda, especially in the Canadian market. It’s a predictive system – there’s always some power being sent to the rear wheels – that’s compact enough as to not overly affect interior space and keep weight down.
That was step one; next came the addition of a turbo for ’21 — yes, the last time we saw one of these in the Mazda3 was in the ‘Speed days — and it has given Mazda a power-capability combo for the Mazda3 that isn’t really equalled anywhere else in the compact world this side of the luxury manufacturers.
The icing on the cake, some might say, is my particular tester’s 100th Anniversary trim package. It adds a bunch of look-at-me niceties such as special badging on the wheels, fenders and headrests, brick red interior, gloss black front grille and larger-diameter exhaust. While it’s unfortunate the only colour you can get it in is white, it does well to drive the point home that this is more than just a compact’s highest trim; it’s an effort to move into a whole other segment.
All that’s on top of the fact that the Mazda3 already has a nice interior with low-profile centre stack, great materials all around, ultra-tight panel fastening, well-padded seats and good front seating position, if one that’s just a little more canted back than I’d like.
I’m less enamoured with the rear seats, however; for all its bluster, the Mazda3 remains a compact sedan so one doesn’t expect a cavernous rear seat but it feels a whole lot tighter in here than it does in the Hyundai Elantra or Honda Civic, for example, especially when it comes to the paltry 931 mm of headroom you get with the sunroof, and you can’t get a turbo car without one. What space you lose there, though, seems to have migrated to the trunk which seems bigger than it’s 374-litre capacity suggests, possibly thanks to a generous trunk opening.
Power is rated at 250 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque, though you do have to fill up with 93 octane to achieve those figures. Regular gas returns 227 hp and 310 lb-ft, which are still generous figures that put the Mazda3 at the top of the class it terms of power. The Corolla isn’t even close, you have to upgrade to the Civic Type-R to get there from the Honda (which makes do with less torque) and even the Volkswagen Jetta GLI only eclipses the Mazda3’s non-93 octane figure by a measly 1 hp. Mazda may say this isn’t the return of the Mazdaspeed3, but the power figures suggest otherwise.
So does the feeling when you plant it and set off, letting all four wheels grapple with the punchy turbo motor to slingshot you down the road on a surprisingly vocal exhaust note – not a Mazdaspeed, remember – that sounds like a cross between the unique warble of a Subaru WRX’s flat-four and that of a VW Golf R. It’s a great, bassy note that never gets old. Unfortunately, you can enjoy it only as much as the six-speed automatic allows, because it’s your only choice. Mazda says that the buyer it’s targeting for this car just doesn’t have a manual box too high up on their punch list, so those looking for some of that will have to make do with paddle shifters. Which I did. Often.
Handling-wise, it should come as little surprise that this is all about the point-and-shoot; have a look where you want to go, dial in a little bit of steering lock and you’ll be carving perfect swathes through your favourite b-road before you know it. There’s grip for days, here, and that pays dividends both on dry tarmac and in adverse conditions.
In addition to the well-sorted damper settings and steering (that could actually use a little more feel, if I’m honest), we have Mazda G Vectoring control. What this tech does is automatically and very slightly modulate the throttle when steering inputs are sensed, to try and get more weight over the front wheels and better grip as a result. You wont’ feel the weight transfer, but you will appreciate the response it provides.
There is just so very little not to like about this car. The powertrain is a great one, the chassis is in-keeping with Mazda’s recent offerings and that’s a very good thing and it has some luxury chops that help put it just that much more over the high-water mark in this segment.
Just don’t call it Mazdaspeed3, mmmkay?
The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.